While it can feel like the world is in the midst of an energy transition — where one source of energy is replaced by another — that’s not what’s happening. Instead of transition, we’re in a period of addition. The growing use of wind and solar power is actually coming on top of increased consumption of coal, natural gas, and oil.
Understanding this global story is essential to thinking through U.S. energy policy and reducing emissions both here and abroad. For example, even as the United States uses less coal, other countries are increasing their reliance on it. Coal is the leading fuel for electricity generation worldwide, and global coal consumption is expected to grow for the foreseeable future.
Hundreds of new coal plants are planned or already under construction overseas. With global electricity consumption expected to increase 79 percent by 2050, coal will remain the world’s energy foundation for decades to come.
What does this mean for America’s energy and climate policy? The world desperately needs U.S. leadership in advanced coal technologies. That may sound counterintuitive. But smart, truly replicable energy and climate leadership requires thinking about solutions for the fuels the world continues to use.
While Democratic presidential candidates propose banning fuels or mandating a wind and solar economy at incredible cost, the answer is far more nuanced. Certainly, renewables will be part of the equation. But instead of abandoning affordable, reliable power, we need to produce clean-energy solutions that enhance — not jeopardize — our economy.
The Department of Energy’s “Coal First” program offers a template for the type of leadership we must provide. The Coal First effort aims to develop a new type of near-zero emissions coal plant that can better integrate into the electricity grid of the future. These new units will be smaller and more flexible than the existing fleet of coal plants. Flexibility will be needed so that plants can quickly ramp up and down to help balance swings in electricity generation that come from weather-dependent renewables. Currently, quick-reacting natural gas plants largely play this role in the U.S. But natural gas is a luxury fuel overseas. Coal, not gas, will be used to integrate wind and solar power abroad.
The market for these flexible, low-emissions coal plants is enormous. It’s a market opportunity the U.S. should capture.
Developing and deploying these advanced, near-zero-emission coal plants should be a key piece of our global leadership. But they’re also needed here at home. To ensure an affordable and reliable supply of power, we need a balanced electricity mix that uses all of our fuels.
Smart energy policy requires us to think globally. With a global perspective, it’s clear coal is here to stay. Let’s lead in developing and deploying the advanced coal technologies that the world needs and American economic competitiveness requires.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant.